The feminist manifesto that isn’t, thank God, a feminist manifesto

“I am wary of reading any more feminist manifestos these days because they are very exhausting! Who the fuck just loves themselves all the time?”, writes Charlotte Graham-McLay, in her review of a brilliant new memoir hailed as a feminist manifesto but it isn’t, really.

All I want famous women to talk about these days is failure. I want to watch them reclining luxuriant in fucking up and not knowing what to do about it. The ability of women to be messy, to fail and get second chances – rather than be held up as emblematic for the one time a woman was permitted to try something and couldn’t get it done – has for so long been non-existent. We are scared of failure because it might confirm every belief we have been fed about ourselves, and so the feminist manifesto is there to tell us that women are actually fantastic and can do everything. This assertion is often so untrue that it leaves us feeling even worse than we did before reading the feminist manifesto, although it occurs to me that a lot of men cannot do very much either.

I found the honesty I had been looking for on these matters in Deborah Levy’s memoir The Cost of Living, which sits so openly and easily with its contradictions that it almost feels transgressive. She points out the impossible burden that society places on mothers – “if she comes too close, she suffocates us, infecting our fragile courage with her contagious anxiety” – while also writing with love and warmth of her own daughters, who she holds close as, aged 50, she begins a new life without their father, and outside the family home that has eroded her identity.

“The new situation had freed something that had been trapped and stifled,” she writes, about divorcing her husband and moving into a rundown apartment block with her daughters, to start afresh. A few sentences later, she adds that “freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows who much it costs.” It is a tension regularly at the heart of women’s stories, and Levy seems to revel in it. Her new, free life is “fumbling for keys in the dark,” she says; it comes at a price.

Feminist manifesto” trumpet the reviewers of Levy’s book, but thank God it isn’t really – or at least, not in the current, conventionally trendy sense. I am wary of reading any more feminist manifestos these days because they are very exhausting! (Who the fuck just loves themselves all the time? And why are exhortations to do so on so many ads for active wear?).

Levy’s vulnerability and uncertainty that makes her writing so bold and endearing to read. “Surely she could write and have happiness and love and a home and a child? She didn’t think so,” she says of the feminist pioneer Simone de Beauvoir, who refused to leave Paris to live with her lover in Chicago because she believed her lives – writing and love – would prove incompatible.

“I had found it quite tricky myself,” admits Levy. She has a shrewd observer’s eye, which leads to some canny, enjoyable studies of friends and strangers alike and reminds the reader of her strengths as a novelist (Swimming Home and Hot Milk were both Booker-shortlisted). In particular, she has men in her sights: the man who asks a young woman on a train to move her laptop from their shared table so he has somewhere to read his newspaper; the male friends who refer to their wives without ever saying their names, or sometimes even without looking at them.

Such behaviour is “nothing less than attempted murder,” she says.

Without pondering or posturing, Levy allows these interactions to breathe – the laptop ends up perched on the corner of the train table at an odd angle, “to make space for the man’s newspaper” – and lets the reader produce their own anger. I recently read a fairly dreadful fictionalised biography of Martha Gellhorn, in which another character, in California in the late 1930s, honest to God asks Gellhorn if she really thinks she can “have it all,” and I feel there is merit to be had in feminist writing where the author pretends she has never read or heard of Sheryl Sandberg.

Even better, Levy has the generosity in this memoir to turn her incisiveness inwards; when a fountain has been “winterised,” shut off by the council for the season, she muses: “I reckon that is what had happened to me too.”

If all of this sounds bleak, Levy’s scramble to make a new life as a writer outside the “moody politics” of the family home provides a levity, even a joy, to the book. Her writing life is both depressingly and hearteningly relatable; depressing because she had been shortlisted for a Booker by this point, and heartening because sometimes it feels that to have to write freezing cold every day is a sign that you are abjectly bad at it and should find something more fruitful to do with your time.

Levy, for the price of her freedom, moves into an apartment building with sporadic hot water. She is offered a shed to write in by a poet friend and wrestles with negotiating this new and unglamorous space. She takes every job, even the ones she doesn’t want, because she cannot afford to say no, and she meets movie executives with leaves stuck in her hair.

Where Levy’s first memoir instalment, Things I Don’t Want to Know, interrogated George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write,” this one explores the territory (though without engaging directly) of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”: the struggle of a woman to create the physical and psychic space necessary for art, while society encroaches with a list of needs and demands.

What makes Levy spectacular is the way she conveys that tension; at one point, she drops a supermarket chicken while riding her bike and it is squashed flat by a truck; she serves it to her family anyway. This is the cost of living, she seems to say, but it is preferable to feeling alien in a family home you had been forced to build for everyone except yourself.

Levy has a playwright’s knack for conjuring rich detail using incredibly spare and precise language; my copy of the book is full of more text highlighted than not, which is a reviewer’s nightmare but a reader’s delight. It is a very slim volume but you should make time and come prepared to savour every phrase. It is also highly referential, although in a more glancing, less formal way than, say, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (another wonderful memoir written in a similarly contemplative vein).

Despite the book’s brevity, it documents a powerful mingling of two griefs: the end of Levy’s marriage and the death of her mother. Levy has a slow awakening to the pressures on her mother to conform to society’s particular standards, but at the same time steels herself to be “more ruthless” than her mother ever was. For many women, these contradictions will feel familiar and reassuring. On the other hand, her divorce is perhaps Levy’s least conflicted subject matter: she is clear that she does not want to “swim back to the boat” of her marriage. It is over, and while she wrestles with who she should be next, she does not equivocate about having landed in the right place.

Starving women of stories that tell the full plethora of female experience kicks our confirmation bias into full swing when we do have the chance to read one; every precious story of a woman’s marriage or family life becomes something to hold up for deeper examination, with conclusions drawn even where they are not warranted or wanted. Does this story mean that marriage will work for everybody or nobody? Does that one? We’ve seen the same urge writ large over our prime minister and her baby the past week; the certainty that Jacinda Ardern must be a cipher for all women, and that her desire to have both a baby and and a job must answer, once and for all, the question of whether any woman can. If we had more such examples, we would be able to calm down and accept that there can be many different endings to a story, and that other people’s endings do not say much about our own.

We do the same thing with other women’s stories of marriage; rummaging in them for evidence to prove to ourselves that we are selling out by choosing it, or by not choosing it. But trying to parse other people’s marriages after you have agreed to get married yourself is like torturing yourself by continuing to read online reviews of a kitchen appliance after you’ve already placed your order and the appliance has been shipped. “Oh, but I won’t use mine like that,” you think, poring over the one-star reviews. “That one sounds much more like me, and their toaster lasted for 57 years and they loved the toast every single day.”

Levy’s discussion of her marriage eschews your attempt to categorise it in such terms, and is so light on detail that what she does include packs a real punch. She was relieved, she says, that her husband did not ask her questions. “It was as if we made a pact from the moment we met, to know less about each other rather than more,” she writes, and somehow that transcends your desire to package Levy’s experience into the box marked “People of a Previous Generation Who Perhaps Wouldn’t Have Got Married if They Knew They Had Had Other Choices” and speaks to the consistent weakness in our relationships. Levy gently stops you from mining her story for answers on the right way to be female; it’s frustrating and a gift.

You get the sense that Levy feels the same when she wryly measures herself up to her feminist muse, Simone de Beauvoir. She points out their incompatibly different choices (Levy’s, initially, towards marriage and children), but also the way that they eventually moved in a shared direction: towards that costly freedom that comes with control over one’s own life.

It is nice to know that Simone de Beauvoir’s nerve is puzzling and striking to other women. A few years ago, challenged to make something that wasn’t “just writing” in a boozy writing group I was a part of, I compiled a collage over top of pages of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, made of email fragments that showcased my embarrassing capitulation, over a period of years, to an ill-advised boyfriend from my 20s, who believed that my job in our relationship was to be human enough for two people because his busy academic career meant he did not have the time. Both his and my email addresses appeared on the fragments, which seemed like the ultimate act of shrugging off allegiance to this person who had undermined everything I had thought about myself for such a long time. My writing group thought it was funny, and I basked in feeling clever and brave, as though, in my honesty, I had redeemed myself in de Beauvoir’s eyes, even if I had been late to the party.

At nine o’clock that night, it suddenly occurred to me that I had left my original copy of de Beauvoir, emails stuck to the pages, open inside the photocopier at the university library. That alarm of running flat tack through the dark streets of Wellington, coat flapping open, came back to me as I read Levy’s swagger in feeling ready to “write a manifesto on a toilet wall in a pub” while dancing to Bowie at a party, then two pages later and sober, feeling that her life was constantly fumbling for her keys.

She says: “the writing you are reading now is made from the cost of living,” and I am emboldened by that. I am also still glad that when I skidded into the university library, sweaty and sick, my copy of de Beauvoir was there, open inside the photocopier, where I had left it.


The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, $35) is available at Unity Books.


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